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Common Tread

Motorcycles and the people who love them at the Modern Classics Show

Mar 14, 2014

With my trusty Mazda 3 Hatchback's heater cranked to 11 in a vain effort to ward off this stubborn Pennsylvania winter, I made the 40-minute drive to Boyertown, Pa., for the fourth annual Modern Classics Motorcycle Show. The brainchild of Dennis Martin, owner of Martin Motorsports, a multi-line dealership in Boyertown, the show is an invitational event that highlights iconic makes and models of the past 50 years of motorcycling and beyond.

For one Saturday a year, all the regular inventory of shiny new bikes is removed from the showroom floor and replaced with greasy relics from bygone years. The theme for this year’s show was loosely focused on the oily heartbeat of the two-stroke engine.

Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The two-stroke engine was reinvented during the late 1950s by Walter Kaaden, an engineer in East Germany during the Cold War. Working with what little resources he had, Kaaden breathed life into this forgotten technology. With the invention of the rotary valve, the boost port and the expansion chamber exhaust, which effectively supercharged the engine from the back end, Kaaden created a masterpiece of racing machinery which, when placed in the right hands, was unbeatable. That was until Ernst Degner, one of the riders on Kaaden’s race team, defected to Japan from the Soviet Union and sold this technology to a struggling motorcycle manufacturer called Suzuki. The rest, as they say, is history.

Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

This year’s show celebrated the machines developed thanks to Degner’s monumental act of treason. From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, some of the meanest bikes on the road were propelled by two-stroke powerplants and two-strokes ruled Grand Prix racing until they were legislated away in the 21st century. Even Harley-Davidson released a series of small two-stroke bikes through its Italian partnership with Aermacchi.

One of these rare Italian Harleys caught my eye as I began to circle the event: a 1971 Harley Davidson Rapido dressed in emerald green and powered by a tiny 125cc two-stroke engine. The grizzled gentleman standing next to her lit up as I snapped off a few quick photos.

Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.
“What do you think of the ol’ Rapido?” he asked, grinning as if he were a proud father in the delivery room.

“She looks great,” I replied, returning his smile. He proceeded to tell me the story of how the bike was thrown into a trade for an RV he had acquired years earlier.

“She hadn’t run in years,” he said, staring down at the tank. “Now look at her! She’ll fire up on the first kick!”

Anyone who has ever tried to kick over a vintage bike knows what a feat of valor this truly is.

“I have a ‘76 Honda that won’t even do that.” I chuckled. I talked with him for a few more minutes before shaking hands and continuing on my way, freshly filled with nostalgia. I could hear him telling the story again a few minutes later.

Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.
Despite the two-stroke theme, there were plenty of four-strokes on display, as well. My favorite four-stroke of the day unequivocally was an awesome, blood-red 1976 Honda CB400F Super Sport. Only produced for three years from 1976 through 1978, the CB400F was one of the first factory-produced “café racers” that laid the groundwork for the modern sportbikes of the 1980s. With one of the most distinguishable exhaust designs in motorcycling history, the CB400F has always held a special place in my heart.

“You are looking at my favorite bike in my collection,” came a voice from behind me. I turned around to find a middle-aged man, about 55, walking slowly toward me while heavily favoring his cane for support. He shifted his weight as he offered me his hand.

“Name’s Bob,” he stated as he shook my hand, then proudly informed me that he has another CB400F at home in his basement. It turns out Bob has quite a few bikes in his basement, including a BSA Lightning, a Norton Commando 750, a Triumph Bonneville, and an assortment of Harley-Davidsons.

“Out of all of my bikes, that Honda is still my favorite,” he continued. “It used to be my Dad’s bike and it was what I learned to ride on.”

He told me the limp was the product of being hit by a woman in a minivan while out for a ride on his 1993 Sportster a few years ago. Despite years of therapy, he still could not ride a motorcycle.

I asked if he planned to sell off his small collection, but he just shook his head.

“I can’t sell them,” he said. “If I do, that’s it for me. As long as I have those bikes, I have motivation to keep trying to get better.”

To anyone who does not ride a motorcycle, maybe that sounds crazy, holding on so tightly to something that almost got you killed. Chances are if you ride a motorcycle, Bob’s motivation sounds downright therapeutic.

Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

By midday, the event was in full swing and crowds of people swarmed the building, snapping pictures, talking to old friends and making new ones. The second floor of the building was set up with tables and couches and provided the perfect vantage point to gaze out over the entire floor. The stairway was jammed with visitors trying to make their way to the volunteers selling cheese steaks, root beers, and cookies. I paid for a Coke and settled down on a couch to watch the interactions below.

To my right sat a gentleman by the name of Michael Lawless, an AMA Flat Track racer and writer who was sharing the day with his young daughter. We spent the next few minutes talking about the projects in our garages, different events we have attended and mutual acquaintances. It never ceases to amaze me that you can sit down with a stranger, start a conversation about motorcycles, and before you know it you have a list of people in common that you both know and respect.

These bikes commingle to present an extraordinary lesson in modern history, mapping out the course of an industry to show us how we got to where we are today. For example, the new 865cc Modern Classic line by Triumph is heavily influenced by vintage British twins, while the DNA of the new Honda CB1100 is clearly infused with that of the CB400, CB550, and CB750 lineup. Who would have thought that in 2014, the year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Kawasaki GPZ900R Ninja, we would all be sitting around waiting for Yamaha to release a kickstart-only SR400?

The special motorcycles in the Modern Classics Show are more than just old machines. They are the culmination of long nights, bloody knuckles, and greasy palms. They are exquisite labors of love. Some of these bikes have had only one owner. Some are fully restored to their original beauty even as the men and women who ride them continue to age. This generation of enthusiasts has a clear desire to pass on their wisdom, experiences, and stories, and it’s my generation’s responsibility to embrace it.

When I was 4 years old, my grandfather and I built a little wooden toolbox together. I have been looking for things to fix ever since. When I was a junior in college, I took a job at Kuhns Garage, a small family-owned business in Allentown, Pa., about 20 minutes from campus. When I was not in class or at the library, I could be found underneath the hood of a car, wrench in hand, and covered in grease. Wayne, the owner, was more of a father figure than a boss and Lenny, the head mechanic of almost 40 years, was more of a grandfather than a co-worker. Together they took me under their wings and patiently taught me the art of turning a wrench.

Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.
In the drive for collegiate excellence in this country, the art of the “apprenticeship” has been pushed to the background. One of the things I love most about the motorcycle community as a whole is the massive respect younger generations have for the men and women who came before. Nowhere is that more evident than at a vintage motorcycle show or rally.

I smiled as I watched an elderly man in a World War II baseball cap explain how an Amal carburetor works to a young kid with a shaggy beard, perhaps because it reminded me so much of myself at Kuhns Garage. Any other day of the week, these are just ordinary guys with a few old bikes in the garage. But at these events, they are the stars of the show.

We all come to look at the bikes, but it is the stories behind them that we take with us.

See dozens of additional photos from the Modern Classics Motorcycle Show in our Facebook photo album.